by Michael Thomas
Al Spx is the real deal.
Nothing else seems like the right way to start off this show review. I’ve talked enough about her recordings, but seeing her live with a full band was an experience in itself. It was no surprise that the show sold out.
The Great Hall can be a hit or miss venue depending on who’s playing. It also got really hot in there really fast, though it was still somewhat tolerable. I was pleasantly surprised to find that chairs had been arranged this time around (as opposed to a giant pit). The chairs provided the necessary atmosphere to enjoy the wonder that is Cold Specks.
Opening the show was Toronto duo Snowblink. As usual, the two brought a dreamy atmosphere to warm up the crowd. Daniela Gesundheit sported her signature antlered guitar and was armed with a loop pedal which she sometimes used to loop her vocals. She was also really hilarious in between songs, talking about how she doesn’t enunciate when she sings and how she was hoping she could stage dive.
They opened their set with “Green to Gone,” a very pleasant song from their previous album Long Live and ended with “Rut & Nuzzle.” They also played at least one song from their upcoming album Inner Classics. In addition, they also played a Bruce Springsteen cover (“It’s about a murderer,” Gesundheit said about the song. “I am not one,” she apparently felt the need to add). They also did a “ranchero song” which showed Gesundheit’s excellent pronunciation of Spanish words.
It wasn’t too long before Al Spx and the rest of her extremely talented backing band took the stage as Cold Specks. Spx began the set by singing a cappella before launching into “The Mark,” followed by “Heavy Hands.” By the time the latter song began her full band was on stage, featuring a guitarist, cellist/bassist, drummer, horn player and keys player. Several of the instrument players also contributed some great vocals.
Having listened to I Predict a Graceful Expulsion an inordinate number of times, I noted that “The Mark” and “Heavy Hands” are tracks one and two on the album, respectively. Spx confirmed this when she said that the band had trouble coming up with a setlist, so they decided to play the album in order. Before moving onto “Winter Solstice” though, Spx did an a cappella cover of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song to raucous applause from the audience (apparently this cover is a Cold Specks show staple).
As the band moved through the songs, Spx continued to show the power of her absolutely tremendous voice. For a song or two she even sang a bit without the microphone and one could barely even tell the difference. The backing band provided amazing support, even filling the part that choirs filled in on the album. The intensity was at its strongest during “Steady,” and it also showed the limit of the Great Hall sound system as Spx’s vocals got a little lost in the mix when six instruments were playing at once. This was the only real technical hiccup- other than that everything sounded great.
Immediately following the album play-through, the crowd quickly gave Spx a standing ovation, to which she beamed and even said “stop it!” at one point. She then moved onto singing “Goodbye Old Stepstone” (the b-side from the Holland 7″) and then did two new songs with her full band.
Spx the whole time was completely humble and unassuming, and therein lies her major appeal. Some women with powerful voices can become divas; Spx just prefers to let her voice speak for itself.
The performance at the Great Hall no doubt left many people stunned, and likely little doubt as to why her record made it onto the Polaris short list.